Moral Collapse In The 1920s

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book about the collapse of morality. I wanted to dig into the subject and trace the intellectual roots of the moral catastrophe that occurred at some point in the 20th century. How did morality become identified with the -isms and -phobias?

In 2020, our country is being ripped apart by fanatics who are obsessed with antiracism, but a century ago virtually no one in America believed “antiracism” had anything to do with morality. The same is true of “anti-Semitism.” It became taboo after World War II. In our times, accusations of sexism, nativism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, “discrimination,” “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and so on are sufficient grounds to destroy a man’s career. The traditional moral virtues which used to collectively comprise a Victorian man’s character – things like honesty, courage, integrity, fidelity, piety, temperance and so forth – count for nothing in the public sphere. It occurred to me that 18th and 19th century Americans would be bewildered by what passes for “morality” in our times. “Morality” as we understand it in the 21st century was conjured into existence only in recent decades.

Anyway, I never completed that project and moved on to other things, but studying the Victorian-to-Modern transition has given me new insight into the causes of this moral breakdown. The Victorian generations understood morality to be universal, true, absolute and obvious. In contrast, the Modern generations attempted to base morality on pragmatism, relativism and social science. In doing so, the Moderns untethered morality from all forms of traditional authority, which cast future generations adrift into a world where “morality” has been steadily redefined by academia and the mass media as being synonymous with trends like Freudian psychoanalysis, critical theory and postmodernism.

The biggest blow to Victorian morality occurred in the early 20th century shortly before World War I when the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, H.G. Wells and other Europeans arrived in America where pragmatism was already ascendant due to the influence of William James and John Dewey.

The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:

“The Liberation, the movement of thought which reached America in the prewar years, is easy to taste and observe, but hard to define. Pervasive and vigorous, it was over very quickly. Iridescent and shifting, insistently gay (its critics would say irresponsible), it was based not so much on a theory as on a way of getting along without theories. One understands it most easily through characteristic episodes recalled in memoirs or described in the press – the explosion of popular poetry in new modes, the excitement of the Armory Show, the dramatic succession of intellectual fashions, the way Bergson and Wells and Freud became crazes like the Turkey Trot or the Tango. To see the Liberation in its dazzling colors – the colors of the Russian Ballet and Matisse, one must place it for contrast against the solid true-blue background of the Progressive Era.

If the Liberation had a characteristic doctrine, it was a simple and old one, very close to the central assertion of earlier romantic periods, the assertion that life transcends thought. The dogmas of the nineteenth century, idealist and still more scientific naturalist, were dead; the twentieth century was to have no place for any dogmas at all. Nothing, especially nothing depressing, had been proven; science had suddenly become wide-open at the ends, and the arguments of philosophers had cancelled each other out. Therefore the road was clear for the creative intuition: one could believe almost whatever one wanted. Traditional values, like traditional means of establishing them, were highly doubtful; it was permissible to prefer violence to peace, creative destruction to building, primitivism to civilization. The only thing that was not permissible was fear, especially fear of change or of the future.

The Liberation reached America some time not long before 1910 and it was clearly over by 1917. It directly affected only certain small groups of young people, and yet its influence was pervasive during these years. Because it was so brief, historians of thought and literature have often failed to describe it clearly. Sometimes they have confused it with earlier tendencies, more often its fugitive note has been drowned out by the brass bands of the twenties. A distant movement in itself, the Liberation was related to what went before, and it opened the way to all that came after …”

Walter Lippmann, a cofounder of The New Republic which became the mouthpiece of early modernist liberalism, was one of the young Losters who was influenced by what Henry F. May calls the Liberation. nb4 it is pointed out in the comments that Lippmann was Jewish. While this is true, Lippmann wasn’t as bad as some of the Gentiles who were his contemporaries like Randolph Bourne. William James and John Dewey also towered in cultural influence over the younger generation.

The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:

“Reconstruction of values proceeded in the nervous generation. Most of those who participated in the rebuilding attempted to establish an ethical system on an empirical, scientific basis. Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals, published in 1929 after five years of work, is the central statement.”

By the time Walter Lippmann published A Preface to Morals, the moral consensus of the Victorian era had been toppled by the pragmatists, relativists and the modernists. As we have seen, the New Humanists led by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More were exchanging fire with H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, Malcolm Cowley and others on the Modernist side of the debate. See Norman Foerster’s Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization and C. Hartley Grattan’s The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium. In the late 1920s, the debate sucked in American intellectuals and produced rival symposiums. The Modernists prevailed and “Babbitt” became forever associated with Sinclair Lewis’ novel. The Genteel tradition gave way to Modernism in the 1920s.

“Along with most intellectuals in the twenties (Humanists, of course, excepted) Lippmann recognized the breakdown of belief in external, higher authority as a source of values. Man had been left “in the midst of [a] vast dissolution of ancient habits.” The modern generation, Lippmann continued, found it difficult to define right and wrong. The old idea of divine authority had once made morality a matter of discovering the will of God and then conforming to it. There was no “why”; just faith and obedience. Then, gradually, this certainty had been eroded. Science played a major role. So did the modern disinclination to accept any arbitrary authority – in government, for instance.”

The Losters unshackled themselves from Victorian morality and embraced Modernism. This cultural break which occurred in the 1920s separates the Victorian generations from the Modern generations.

“In some quarters it had been supposed that this emancipation would be the key to happiness, but by 1929 Lippmann had his doubts. Man could not exist in a moral vacuum. If civilization was to exist, some ethical system was essential. In A Preface to Morals Lippmann nominated his candidate.

The basis of the new morality, Lippmann decided, had to be necessity, common sense, and, most importantly, experience. Taking the pragmatic, relativistic approach, he argued that codes of conduct and social institutions would be evaluated according to how well they worked to produce a satisfactory life. The old codes would not necessarily become passé. Lippman had not intention of discarding traditional values such as love, honesty, courage, restraint, and unselfishness. Nor did he envision the replacement of institutions like marriage and the family. They were justified on the basis of human experience and the scientific method of testing observable consequences. Pragmatic criteria led me to act in the manner dictated by religion. God was unnecessary; the same results, in terms of human behavior, could be attained with social science.”

As subsequent history was to show, it was incredibly naive to assume that God and faith and the transcendent and absolute standards could be subtracted from traditional Christian morality and that it could rest comfortably on the new foundation of pragmatism, relativism and the new social science, but this is what the American liberal establishment came to believe at the time.

“In the concluding portion of A Preface to Morals Lippmann considered, one by one, the chief values of the world’s great religions past and present. In each case he attempted to prove the practicality of the particular law or institution. Writing on the institution of marriage, for example, Lippmann declared: “If it is the truth that the convention of marriage correctly interprets human experience, whereas the separatist conventions [i.e., the practice of separating sex and marriage] are self-defeating, then the convention of marriage will prove to be the conclusion which emerges out of all this immense experimenting. It will survive not as a rule of law imposed by force … It will not as a moral commandment with which the elderly can threaten the young … It will survive as the dominant insight into the reality of life and happiness, or it will not survive at all.” The regulation of sexual behavior through the institution of marriage, then, was a practical matter. The joining of one man and one woman was the product of experiment and experience rather than the whim of an omnipotent deity or a bearded mystic’s oracular pronouncement.”

In attempting to substitute pragmatism, relativism and social science as the basis of marriage and in elevating the value of “experimentation” and “experience,” the modernists simply undermined the institution. They undermined the family and morality in general. The logic of the modernist aesthetic which values “experimentation” and “experience” and “self-expression” dissolved all restraints.

“The response of the American intellectual community to Lippmann’s book provides an insight into the attitude of the 1920s on the subject of value. Most of those who reviewed A Preface to Morals accepted as fact the dissolution of the absolute. Supernaturalism was defunct. But most expressed confidence in modern man’s ability to reconstruct morality on a naturalistic basis and applauded Lippmann for his attempt.”

What could go wrong?

“Edmund Wilson’s reaction was typical of the general opinion. Writing in the New Republic in July 1929, Wilson agreed with Lippmann that “society left to itself, despite its present bewilderments, may probably be counted upon to evolve a sound morality.” A Preface to Morals, Wilson continued, was “an antidote to T.S. Eliot … and to the … other critics who tend to despair of modern civilization.” Lippmann, according to Wilson, gave modern man assurance that even with ancient authorities gone we could “stand on our human feet” in the matter of value.”

Yeah, before falling flat on our face.

T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt were right.

“Other reviewers followed suit. Elmer Davis declared in the New York Times that “Mr. Lippmann’s title should cheer the pessimist who thinks it is about time to write a postscript to morals.” Writing in the Book-of-the-Month Club News, Henry Seidel Canby observed that “a moral earthquake” had shaken the Western world since World War I and muddied distinctions between right and wrong. Every thoughtful person, Canby believes, had been searching for a substitute for the “conventional rules that were accepted as final in their youth.” Lippmann’s book was the answer; it provided a new moral philosophy. In Canby’s opinion this made A Preface to Morals a book no thoughtful American should miss.”

In retrospect, it is worth reading as the beginning of the end.

“And few, it seemed, did. The book was published in May, 1929, and chosen immediately and unanimously, by five judges, as the Book of the Month. The first printing was 80,000 copies, and there were six more printings before the end of the year. A Preface to Morals ranked sixth on the list of best-selling nonfiction for 1929. Lippmann, apparently, spoke reassuring words to an anxious age.”

In essence, Walter Lippmann’s argument in A Preface to Morals was that you can have your cake and eat it too. What does social science have to say about the subject today about a century out?

About Hunter Wallace 9671 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

29 Comments

  1. Aptly timed post, as I was just called a misogynist for making a comment about a group of 30 something year olf women dressed like hookers for Halloween, by an Indian man. He lectured me “you have no right to judge what a woman does with her body”. To say that the whole vacuum of morals and lecture by someone who despite being in America for less than one generation is “more American” than me.

    Solid show with Spencer by the way. I enjoyed both of you until the very end when Richards total lack of knowledge on the Antebellum South didnt stop him from rambling on like an expert

    • You certainly do have a right to judge. It’s about the only thing one has the right to do anymore. Not entitled to pass sentence though.

    • “He lectured me “you have no right to judge what a woman does with her body”. ”

      Actually, yes, we do! For Eve came from Adam, NOT the other way around. And Adam was God’s Image [Ikon] as Eve is Adam’s [ikon]. The entire BS apparatus of ‘egalitarianism’ is satanic- which is why the Dot, not feather hominid (not a Man, in teh biblical sense) was ‘out of his place’ to even talk to you Captain!

      Here. Everyone should read this and pass it around before Tuesday.

      Open Letter to DJT from Cardinal Viganó, Roman Catholic prelate.
      https://bardsofwarfilm.com/open-letter/

    • I had the same reaction. Spencer kept on desperately pretending he knew the “real deal” about the WONA as if he was telling some “hard truths” to Southerners who just “couldn’t’ admit” their entire existence was all about Negro slavery.

      Just remember that Richard Spencer, and his entire “Alt Right” movement, has nothing to do with America, or American traditions, and despite being a “WASP” himself, Spencer is fascinated with anything non-American: European fascism, Duganist Russian imperialism, the European “New Right,” and his entire shtick is “the Roman Empire … but in SPACE!”

      Guess what? We all read Nietzsche in school. It’s not new or “controversial” and you aren’t “brave” for “accepting Darwin.”

      What I would give for just a regular pro-white American “movement” without all the cosmopolitan right-wing baggage.

  2. You’re right about Lipmann not being as bad as some of his gentile peers, In fact, with the book “Public Philosophy” published in the mid 1950s, Lippman’s older self attempted to undue some of the damage done by his younger self. During the hippie eruption in the 1960s, an affordable paperback edition was published to the praise of traditional conservatives. In “A Public Philosophy Reader” Richard Bishirjian included an extract along with the writings of right wing scholars such as Bradford, Molnar, Nisbet, and others.

    • (That was a rhetorical question of course.) Also interesting: Conservative Walter Lippmann’s contribution to The Great War: http://realneo.us/content/lippman-bernays-legacy-techniques-modern-propaganda-public-brainwashing-catania-twdc-goverme “Wilson saw the European war as an opportunity. Using the fear of war as a cover, he had already rammed through the Federal Reserve Act, the imposition of income taxes, the introduction of the Internal Revenue Service and the segregation of the armed forces (to prevent white soldiers from contracting ‘black diseases’). Wilson ordered the infant motion picture industry make propaganda films, commissioning films like “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Battle Cry For Peace” (1915) as part of its public brainwashing effort. As a side note, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which depicted the KKK as the noble defenders of American white race privilege, was reputed to be Wilson’s all-time favorite film and was used to justify his reinstitution of racial segregation as official US domestic policy. In 1914, Americans felt that US entry into the European war would be a dreadful and costly mistake and they were determined to keep out of it. In 1916 Wilson won re-election on the campaign slogan, “he kept us out of the war.” Wilson then issued Executive Order 2594 setting up the Committee on Public Information (CPI) whose sole purpose was to generate propaganda to create public support for US entry into the war. And so by 1917, the same public was clamoring for Wilson to take the country into the war. World War I was the world’s first experience with total war, and with it came America’s first systematic and institutionalized national propaganda machine. The CPI was authorized to use censorship and coercion and even mass arrests to silence opposition groups. The committee used songs, film, posters, and press censorship. Throughout the nation, speakers known as “Four Minute Men” gave brief speeches designed to galvanize audiences into action. Germans were referred to collectively as “the Hun” and the “Prussian Python” while political posters portrayed ‘the Hun’ as a raging beast ready to devour American women and children. The CPI circulated propaganda posters showing German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies as they marched through that neutral country. The teaching and speaking of German in America was outlawed. German-sounding words were changed the ‘frankfurter’ became a ‘hot dog’ while sauerkraut became ‘liberty cabbage’ and towns with names like “New Germany” were changed to something more American-sounding….”

  3. Speaking of moral collapse, I wonder what Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer is up to. Let’s take a look…

    Oh my, Richard has written a lengthy article on his Radix website about how Joe Biden is going to win in a certain landslide. I sure hope Richard is correct for his own sake, because he will sure look like a jackass and asshole for predicting and endorsing a Biden win if it doesn’t happen.

    What else is Richard ‘the clown’ up to?

    Oh look, Richard is heaping praise on globalist assholes like Macron and Jack Dorsey, CEO of twitter. Interesting. According to Richard, we can forget all the suppression of freedom of speech Dorsey has committed just because he doesn’t take down criticisms of the Holocaust. And according to Spencer, Macron is sincere about his anti-immigration rhetoric. If I didn’t know any better, I would say Macron is not exactly the most honest or sincere globalist asshole around.

    Perhaps Richard has a third eye and can see things I can’t see. Maybe if I was unemployed and an incel like a majority of what remains of the dissident right / alt right, I would have the time to understand Richard’s point of view and predictions better.

    Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer has special metrosexual powers, his brain has been massaged by the Aryan gods.

    • Why so much hatred. Richard isnt that bad, some of his takes are off base but for the most part he is a clean cut well spoken man whose priority is the preservation of European people. He doesnt scam or act like a total fool as much of the so called AltRight do. He also doesnt drop the N slur or any other, keeping his talking points ahove water. Some of the comedy personas and musicians are ok in small dosages, but normies tend not to be won over with Holocaust parody songs which come across as naturally repulsive

    • In hindsight, we will be able to say Richard was right about Trump’s presidency (at least after 2017), COVID and the causes of his demise. Meanwhile, people like Andrew Anglin and Nick Fuentes were proven wrong about everything they said would happen like millions of people starving to death from lockdowns

      • I’m subjected to hearing this absurd Alt-Right story-line constantly: That “wearing masks causes disease and most of the people who died of influenza in 1918 – 1920 died because they got bacterial pneumonia from wearing masks”! These Alt-Right people have no grasp of science, and poor connection to reality, so they are easy prey for every absurd conspiracy theory and mass hysteria entrepreneur who plays on their paranoia and other emotions for profit.

      • The destruction of people will take a bit of time. It’s clearly wrecked the lives of several cohorts of young people. Id guess the white birthrate will collapse and career’s are now derailed.

      • You really don’t understand the biblical concept of ‘forgive your brother,’ do you?
        Esp. when you were SOOO biased about CORONA-Cold. And even deleted valid posts on the subject..

    • People with Spencer’s background are basically aliens to our movement. If you don’t hate Macron, Dorsey and Biden, you’re scum. Trump is a rascal and a Zionist fanatic but in his background he is not completely alien, which is why he has been persuasive to the masses.

  4. “In hindsight, we will be able to say Richard was right about Trump’s presidency (at least after 2017), COVID and the causes of his demise. Meanwhile, people like Andrew Anglin and Nick Fuentes were proven wrong about everything they said would happen like millions of people starving to death from lockdowns” – Hunter Wallace

    So Spencer and you were right about shilling about Covid fear? It’s just the flu, bro. We literally had a recession over a flu, but that’s not good enough for you, Spencer ‘the clown’, or the left.

    The ‘Covid-19 is serious’ people won’t be satisfied until we shut down everything, arrest anyone for not wearing a mask or going outdoors, and until we’ve driven a majority of small business permanently out of business because they can’t afford to reopen. You people won’t be satisfied until we’ve leveraged permanent damage on our economy because you people literally think Covid-19 is basically airborne AIDS.

    The death numbers are inflated but you love to quote the exact number, Hunter. I’ll tell you right now that I don’t give a shit about a few thousand dead Boomers. If Boomers are willing to vote for Kamala Harris / Biden and unleash an era of anti-Whiteness because they are concerned over the flu, it will be a final fuck you to the millennials and Generation Z.

    It wasn’t good enough for the Boomers to turn this country from 90% White to 60% White. It wasn’t good enough for the Boomers to ship a majority of our manufacturing sector to third world countries to make a quick buck.

    No, the Boomers need to give us one final ‘fuck you’ to the younger generations by voting for Biden and giving us President Kamala Harris.

    Your followers seem awfully calm, Hunter, considering that an era of anti-White enforcement potentially possibly may arrive in the form of a President Kamala Harris and Marxists in charge.

    But then again, your followers are unemployed incels. Need proof? One of your followers is named “Banned Hipster”. Everyone knows hipsters are too lazy to shave and work…they live off their parents money and grow disgusting beards as some sort of statement about literally nothing.

    That’s right Hunter, if it comes from Anglin, Stormfront, Nick Fuentes, conservatives, or patriots, the point of view must automatically be wrong. So you must therefore must have the opposite point of view. I wonder how many of your followers are true followers and would still support your point of view if we have or would have had a 6 month lock-down.

    I know Banned Hipster would be ok with it cause he’s too lazy to shave or work, so there’s at least one.

    • LOL

      Did anything those people get anything right about about the last four years? Anything?

      COVID: Anglin’s position was that it was simultaneously a HOAX and the flu and a vast conspiracy involving tens of millions of people and that millions of people would starve to death because of the lockdown. Trump himself must have been part of the conspiracy because he had the virus too.

      Trump’s presidency: None of the shit they said would happen came true. Nick Fuentes has deleted all his embarrassing tweets about “blackpilled BFTO.” Shit for brains is one of the dumbest pundits in all of politics and his takes and predition have consistently failed to stand the test of time.

      2020 election: How will that play out? Will it play out like Anglin and Fuentes have said it is going to? Alternatively, will all these old people mad about COVID sink Trump while Hispanics vote for him?

    • I live rent-free inside so many heads it’s stunning. First they say I’m an amoral casanova who spends all my time “banging sluts” now I’m an incel living in my mother’s basement off of a trust fund but STILL can’t get laid.

      I’ve been attacked as an “atheist,” a “Christian dupe who worships a Jew” AND some sort of “pagan.”

      There are four – count ’em, FOUR, regular posters on this blog absolutely obsessed with me. It’s just odd.

      I’m like the E.F. Hutton of fringe internet blogs.

      • You’re dating yourself with that reference, BH. Try to keep the mystery alive! Throw in a “yo” every so often to keep the tenderbrained guessing about your actual age. You wealthy, dependent incel MGTOW-types going to church on your way to satanic rites need to be careful. Swing by the gold brokers for me on the way back to your mom’s basement, willya?

        Speaking of ye olde E.F. Hutton commercials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_ygqPepLjM

    • Re: “grow disgusting beards”:

      Anti-mask pandemic reality-denial AND anti-beard reality-denial. You can shave it off, but reality keeps returning. Are you implying that God made a mistake – that men, especially Caucasian men, normally have beards, while women normally do not?

      “In most recent history, beards have taken on somewhat of a negative association, likened to a person hiding behind a mask, creating an illusion of suspicion”:

      https://www.bing.com/search?q=orthodox+beards&form=IENTNB&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&msnews=1&refig=0a337250b0274a9fba3ebf98830bf6d5&sp=-1&pq=orthodox+beards&sc=4-15&qs=n&sk=&cvid=0a337250b0274a9fba3ebf98830bf6d5

      Think of real communists with full beards, Muslim terrorists with full beards, Russian Orthodox (especially the Old Believers) with full beards, full-bearded “Amish mafia,” etc. The only “good” beards are the ones that are partially removed, remainder trimmed “artistically,” and maybe even dyed, as women would do if they had them.

      • Related to the beard “issue” is the New Testament injunction on the “shame” of men having “long hair”: In I Cor. 11:14, the Greek word translated “hair” has the sense of hair being worn as an ornament – STYLED hair. The Greek word denoting physical or anatomical hair, hair as such, is NOT used. Thus, “wearing” a not-full beard as a style or fashion ornament is just as shameful as wearing a hair style.

          • No. But I could add that women wearing traditional head coverings, as well as men with un-styled, full beards tend to “look suspicious” now – “like a person hiding behind a mask….”

  5. “In attempting to substitute pragmatism, relativism and social science as the basis of marriage and in elevating the value of “experimentation” and “experience,” the modernists simply undermined the institution.”

    This is incorrect. Marriage is, and always has been, an economic institution. The “morality” of marriage changed as the economic basis for marriage changed. The “morality” followed the material conditions, as these things always do.

    All that “pragmatism, relativism, and social science” was an attempt to prop up the changing institution.

    • Yeah. The modernists didn’t cause anything. They simply noticed what was already going on. If they hadn’t done or said anything, would that have had any effect whatsoever? Would America have magically remained immune to trends visible everywhere else?

      Marriage is collapsing, along with religion and multiple other ages-old traditions, because we have transitioned from an agricultural society to an industrial one, with extremely different selection pressures. For most of human history, 95% of everybody was involved in producing food. In industrial society, 95% of everybody has no connection whatsoever to food production. The fact that stable monogamous marriage is a good thing does not automatically mean that people adaptd to agricultural society and its social pressures are capable of responding correctly in an industrial context.

      Human society – assuming the industrial aspect doesn’t collapse entirely – will eventually find its way back to some sort of stable equilibrium, just because everybody who can’t handle getting there will have self-selected out of the gene pool. Like the wine aunts. There’s people like that in my extended family; there’s other branches who have averaged 2-3 kids per generation for multiple generations now.

      Lippman was right.

      The future belongs to those who show up.

      • Three percent do the fighting, one percent do the ruling. Want more of a say in what happens? Get involved. Peasants get to start at the local level. Movements get built under the elite’s radar. They usually get co-opted once noticed, but not always.

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